The sun blazes down white hot on this place even in April. The salt flats are baked, the Russian thistle thrives, the rattlesnakes lie in wait. The pipes, cables, and squat buildings all add to the layer of rust bringing on their inevitable demise. But this is the desert, so decay is slow. These remains, these corpses of the greatest power mankind has ever wielded, could last long enough to be witnessed by our grandchildren’s grandchildren, as they should. As they must. It’s the craters, however, that are the great testament to what went on here.
The Nevada Test Site is the most devastated landscape a person could ever lay eyes on in a lifetime. The ground is absolutely destroyed. The flat desert, nestled between mountains and mesas, is broken in hundreds of places. A sideways glance out the bus window is the first time you notice something missing. Out there, twenty yards past a wire fence, the plants disappear. It’s a subtle shift when seen horizontally, until you realize what you’re looking at is a hole in the desert.
Twenty years ago, thirty years ago (who knows?), that spot, that vacuum where once was sand, was drilled. Straight down, hundreds of feet, sometimes more than a mile. And a bomb, an atomic bomb, was placed by the loving mothers of Sandia, or Livermore, or Los Alamos, into its hatchery. 10...9...8...and below the high desert, a sun was born from its plutonium cocoon. The rock, the strata, didn’t stand a chance against the power of the primordial as wielded by man. A spherical cavity of heat and radiation formed around the sun, it’s border of rock turned into molten glass. The pressure held everything in place. Then as things began to cool, slightly, sometimes within seconds or minutes, the molten rim of the sphere began to fall and pool below, a lake of Hades. From above, the ground fell in to fill the vacuum, and on the surface, the crater formed. That’s what you see when you drive through the test site. You see the barest inklings of the fiery hell that shot forth over 800 times below the surface of the Nevada desert. Sure, some of the craters measure hundreds of feet across, enough to swallow whole neighborhoods, but you know they are nothing compared to the blast below that formed them.
“You see that ‘Road Closed’ sign over there? Used to be you could drive up there. But then the Los Alamos boys torched one off a little too close to the road, and well...that was that.”
Roger Staley had worked at the Test Site, employed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for over thirty years as a health physicist. He was one of the guys who made sure you didn’t get zapped by too much radiation studying one of the explosions. He talked about some scientists.
“Sometimes they didn’t believe us when we told them it was too hot. But then we’d get all packed up to bug out, and they’d see we were leaving...they weren’t too far behind.” He meant that when the people who know about radiation, the ones who know what it does to the human body, the ones who know when too much is too much; when they leave, when they decide it’s too hot, even the most stubborn sonofabitch to ever walk the walk is not far behind. There’s little of that now. Nothing’s been blown up out there since the ’90s.
Roger Staley is an old man. He’s typical of the retirees that populate the curatorial staff of various government relics. If you’ve ever been to a museum ship, you know the type. The USS Great American City, awarded five battle stars for service to her country, once mothballed in Suisun Bay, now berthed as a living memorial in Norfolk, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Corpus Christi, where have you, with guided tours conducted by actual former crew members, decades from the service and long retired, available on the cheap to whatever cash-strapped authority managed to find this steel beast a dock far enough away from the brine to keep her hull intact for at least fifty more years of peacetime duty.
It’s the same for the tours out in the high desert. Intelligent men, past their prime, reliving the most productive years of their lives, telling the groups the stories of what really happened out there. At the Test Site, just like aboard the ships, they are unwaveringly proud of what they did. At the Test Site, this confidence takes on a little more weight than the radar operator of the USS New Jersey. After all, it was the hard work of everyone at the test site that made the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction viable. I’d never met anyone before who’d helped make the deaths of tens of millions of people a nightmarish possibility. It was useful to come to the realization that he was human, as were the rest of those responsible for blowing up the desert.
But what an incredible scene they painted out there in the middle of nowhere, far from prying eyes. Another spectator on the tour asked Roger why the Department of Energy had decided a few years ago to offer tours of the Test Site. Roger looked incredulous. He’d heard the question before, of course. But it obviously got to him a little. Goddammit! Look around. Feel your jaw hit the floor. Have you ever seen the like? How could you be parent or uncle to 800 tiny little suns and not want to pass out a few cigars to the public? They deserve it. They paid for it.
Sedan crater sticks out of the desert floor at the north of the Test Site. That’s right, it sticks out. Sedan isn’t like the other craters. Here, the scientists purposely buried the bomb shallow, to see if a nuclear blast could be useful for moving earth. The blast blew enough debris around the crater that its walls rise above the desert floor. Sedan is unique, singular, alone in its devastation among the craters of Yucca Flats. At 104 kilotons it wasn’t the biggest blast, but it was designed to leave the biggest hole. Mission accomplished.
A lonely little platform overlooks its edge. On it is a sign commemorating its power. Width: 1280 feet. Depth: 320 feet. Radiation one week after blast: 500 rems a second. Radiation as measured in 1982: 3 millirems a second. Displacement: 12 million tons (or something thereabouts — we weren’t allowed to take notes). You walk to the edge and look down. Right after you are either awed or horrified by the sheer immensity of the crater, its testament to the forces we are able to unleash, you notice the junk.
Hey, there are tires down there. About six of them. And pipes, running up and down the sides of the crater. Okay, the pipes you get. There are pipes and wires all over the Site. Things had to be studied, after all. Science requires pipes and wires. And out in the desert, the wasteland, a certain amount of detritus is to be expected. But tires? All of a sudden the crater, and how it was made, is brought back to human scale. Nothing destroys the sublime quicker than tomfoolery.
It is but a short leap to picture a couple drunken technicians tear-assing around the desert late on a Friday night, drunk on PX beer. The Site at night must have looked like it was tailor made for shenanigans. No lights, no cops, and background radiation low enough to keep your balls from getting fried, as long as you paid attention to the signs. Most importantly, nothing to do. Who can fault some bored techies, segregated miles from Vegas, but close enough for it to light up the eastern sky, from having a little fun?
The café was the first stop on the tour. Mercury, Nevada. The Department of Energy’s company town, servicing all the Test Site needs, only about a hundred miles south of Sedan. That is a hell of a commute any way you look at it. And it’s another hour from Mercury to Vegas.
Not too far from Sedan there was a permanent camp, so people wouldn’t have to commute back and forth to Mercury, or even back and forth to Vegas. The highlight of the camp was the barbershop. That is just not fair.
So it’s a Friday night and you’re stuck up in the asshole of the Test Site for another weekend. There’s nothing but jackrabbits and rattlesnakes to keep you company. It’s a hundred and ten during the day and even though it cools down at night, the cinderblock walls of your tiny room never seem to give up the heat. They’re painted in government green, too. It’s the same depressing color that lined the walls of every rat-infested public school you’ve ever attended, every post office you’ve ever stood in line in, every public hospital you had the misfortune to get sick near. Everything around you is low rent. You may be satisfied with the work you’re doing, or you may not. Either way, you’re bored, and when Glen from engineering roars up outside of your depressing rat shack in a confiscated jeep flailing a bottle of Jack Daniels about, a six-pack keeping him company on the passenger seat, and a stack of tires in the back, who the hell are you to get all high and mighty about the risks of radiation?
Gassed up with whatever liquor is at hand, miles from civilization, a trunk full of tires, and a perfectly formed hill sloping smoothly down 320 feet just sitting out there with nobody around. You have little choice. You HAVE to roll tires down it.